Study: Ayahuasca Helps Bust Depression Where Pharmaceuticals Fail

Photo: "Aya-preparation" by Heah at the English language Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons


by Aaron Kase

on April 9, 2015

Ayahuasca and other psychedelic substances are gaining a reputation for being potent remedies in battling various mental disorders. A new study out of Brazil adds to the evidence, suggesting that ayahuasca can be effective against depression even when pharmaceutical interventions fail.

The powerful tea-like substance has traditionally been used by native cultures in the Amazon for spiritual exploration and healing. Ayahuasca drinks are brewed from the derivatives of two jungle plants, the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the shrub Psychotria viridis. Its main active ingredient is known as DMT, which can help induce spiritual journeys complete with visions and profound emotional experiences.

In the latest scientific inquiry into the brew, six participants suffering from depression took ayahuasca in an experiment conducted at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. The volunteers, who had previously found pharmaceutical antidepressant treatments ineffective, began to feel relief from their symptoms in just a few hours. The positive results lingered for weeks afterward, long after the psychedelic effects of the ayahuasca wore off. Meanwhile, participants reported no negative side effects aside from some initial vomiting, which is a common reaction to drinking ayahuasca.

“These results suggest that AYA has fast-acting anxiolytic and antidepressant effects in patients with a depressive disorder,” the study concludes.

“It is a proof of concept of what so many ritual ayahuasca users already know: ayahuasca can help one feel extra well, not just during the experience, but for up to days or weeks after,” Brian Anderson, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, said to Nature. “The relationship between ayahuasca’s psychedelic effects and its therapeutic effects needs to be empirically studied.”

For now, the results are promising, if not conclusive. Because the sample size of the study was so small and there was no control group, it’s impossible to rule out a placebo explanation. However, there are properties of the ayahuasca plants that are similar to known antidepressant agents, according to Nature, so it’s not unlikely that the depression-busting effects will stand up to further inquiry.

Other recent studies have shown that DMT and other psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD can counteract disorders like PTSD, addiction and anxiety. People who use them are less likely to be suicidal, and can experience a decrease in anxiety relating to death. Another study found no link between taking psychedelics and experiencing mental disorders. One pilot program is even offering ayahuasca to violent offenders in Brazil in an effort to cut down on recidivism.

More research awaits. DMT is a Schedule I Controlled Substance under the U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances, although the plant itself is not. Ayahuasca drinks are illegal in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act — except for specific religious purposes — and banned in many other countries as well. Consequently, experimentation on their therapeutic effects is limited. However, ayahuasca is legal for religious purposes in Brazil, where the latest study took place.

The next step, researchers say, is to expand their experiments to encompass more people and include a control group to compare results with. At least one such study is already underway, which could be good news for people battling with depression who don’t want to turn their lives over to the pharmaceutical industry. Their solution may have been waiting for them in the jungle all along.